The turbulent sea invades the senses as one steps on to the rickety pier of the defunct port. Mighty waves crash against the pillars of the disintegrating structure. As the surging, foaming waves roar and raise their heads menacingly again and again, you can’t help wonder whether the pier, a symbol of Alappuzha’s lost glory, would last this monsoon. Several of the wooden planks at the mouth of the 1,270-foot long pier have already collapsed, indicating the precarious condition of the historic landmark. Alappuzha MLA and former Tourism Minister KC Venugopal thinks the port, if revived, could handle bulk cargo. Loose cargo such as timber, rice, wheat, cement and fertilisers could be handled here, he pointed out.
“For instance, the revived Alappuzha port could fill the void of the state not having a timber port. As of now, at least 100 truckloads of timber are reaching various parts of Kerala from the Tuticorin Port every day. Given the transportation charges of Rs 7,000 per truck, we are losing Rs 7 lakh daily. This drain of funds could be plugged if we could handle timber vessels here,” says municipal corporation chairperson Lalithamma Somanath.
The rise and fall of Alappuzha, once known as the ‘Venice of the East,’ is closely linked to the port. It had propelled the region to dizzying heights of prosperity and later to its downfall. It was with the construction of the port in 1775 by Raja Kesavadas, former Diwan of Travancore, that Alappuzha gained a coveted slot in the international trade map. A monopoly in the global coir market was just one of the feathers in the crown of this port town in those days. There is no dearth of tales of past glory for Alappuzha. It was Lord Curzon who called it the Venice of the East. Famous travellers of yore like Pliny and Ptolemy had said a lot about this city. With a geographical indicator of its own in the form of ‘Alleppey Coir’ and the developments initiated by Kesavadas, the city had earned several accolades that few other cities could boast of. It was in Mavelikara near the city that one of the five subordinate courts opened in the erstwhile Travancore state in connection with the reorganisation of the judicial system by Colonel Munro in the 19th century.
Going by past records, Alappuzha had been a thriving port city till the late 1960s. At the pinnacle of its glory, nearly 600 steamers used to call at the port annually. Although a major port for the export of cashewnut, coir, copra and spices among others for a long time, the absence of container handling facilities and the commissioning of an all-weather port in Kochi in 1935 hit the seasonal Alappuzha port hard. After 1979, when ships ceased to arrive at the port, the trade circles put in persistent efforts which led to the berthing of a vessel in 1982 for exporting coir. Following the departure of that ship, the port again fell into a slumber until November 1989, when a ship called with 17,000 tonnes of rice from Thailand for the Food Corporation of India. The arrival of the rice ship led to bustling activities at the port and literally infused new blood into the town, albeit for a short while. The occasion had also witnessed the labourers discharging their duties efficiently and helping the vessel leave ahead of schedule. Although the agreement with the shipping companies warranted the labourers to handle 800 tonnes of grain daily, the work force handled nearly 1,000 tonnes. The absence of labour dispute and proper monitoring by a committee headed by the district collector worked wonders.
However, the fresh lease of life for the port lasted till February 19, 1989, by when two more ships called at the port with 21,000 tonnes of rice and 25,000 tonnes of heat. The last time a steamer called at the port was sometime in 1991. A master plan of Rs 500 crore, announced by the previous UDF regime to revive the port for tourism and cargo handling facilities, did not take off. A total of 33 staff, including the pier master, continues to be attached to the port office. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm shown by the municipal authorities and the Port Development Committee, the revival of the port is not an easy proposition. Even the Kochi Port Trust is facing stiff competition from Tuticorin these days. Maybe the easiest option is to repair the pier and preserve it as a historic structure. But this has to be done at the earliest, before the pier suffers irreparable damage. Though the colour of Alappuzha’s soil is red due to the erstwhile Communist uprisings of Punnapra and Vayalar, two senior members of the UPA government belong to this district — Defence Minister AK Antony and Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi. However, Alappuzha failed to translate its political clout into development initiatives.
Moreover, Alappuzha is now a synonym of epidemics like Chikungunya. Drinking water continues to remain its main worry even though the district has plenty of water in its rivers and backwaters. A drinking water project, announced by Antony as chief minister has reached nowhere. Epidemics continue to claim lives.
Backwater tourism with illegal houseboats pose another health hazard as they dump waste and diesel directly to the canals and backwaters. “No one cares,” rues a local resident. However, with the Arabian Sea on its West and an intricate network of criss-crossed lakes, lagoons and fresh water bodies, the Venice of the East has no parallels in the tourism map. A trip in a houseboat along the backwater is a no-miss for any tourist.
Old-timers point out that Alappuzha’s trailblazing beginning has petered out over the years. Although the district headquarter still remains one of the few planned towns in Kerala with its parallel roads and maze of bridges, the town has little space to grow. An absence of water treatment plants, decline of industrial activities, stagnant agriculture sector and trade union strikes have hampered the growth of the district. The coir and cashew workers, who still remain the backborn of the Communist parties, are in extreme poverty due to fluctuating prices. Achuthanadan has given an all-time high support price for rice since last year as a relief for the paddy cultivators.
The Kuttanad region in the district ranks amongst the few places in the world where farming happens below sea level. The snake boat races continue to attract foreign as well as domestic tourists. The crew iron themselves into a single-minded team. A procession is taken out with all types of catamarans (called “Kali-Vallangal”) in tow. The most royal of the lot is the ‘Chundan’ — the creme de la creme. With the boatmen’s song (“Vanchi Pattu”) renting the air, the business is setting in motion.
It’s a cheering sight to see crowds of cycles, goats, fisherwomen with cane baskets, schoolchildren, toddy-tappers with their knives and pots. The coir workers attract one’s attention. It’s an interesting sight as they soak coconut fibre in pools or in canals, beat them out and weave the tough brown strands into long ropes on spindles stretched between endless coconut trees.
“Alappuzha is undoubtedly ageless, mysterious, and perhaps matchless even amidst its ruin. You can catch her live on camera. Words fall short of capturing wondrous Alleppey, God’s own handiwork in time and space,’’ says TC Rajesh, a travel writer from Idukki .